A Personal Account by Jan Stockman Simonds, Head of the Department 1968 – 1971

A Personal Account by Jan Stockman Simonds, Head of the Department 1968- 1971

I was hired as an instructor in dance in 1961; this was following my graduation from the University of Wisconsin and three years in New York. There I danced as a member of the José Limón Company, toured South America with Limón, and taught at Barnard College.

When I arrived in Urbana-Champaign, Margaret Erlanger was on sabbatical in Japan and Willis Ward took charge of dance that year. Joan Skinner arrived at the same time as I did, and Alan Thomas was the part-time music director for the program. He was also part-time in the School of Music. I taught advanced technique that year and discovered immediately that this was a one-credit course and was scheduled to meet for one hour three times per week. I quickly changed the length of the class to an hour and a half, the most I could accomplish at that time. A few years later, Joan Skinner resigned to go to the University of Washington, and Beverly Blossom was hired to replace her.

The dance faculty had long been striving to move from Physical Education into a departmental status within the College of Fine and Applied Arts. Margaret was the leader in this bid to move. For some reason this didn’t happen. With the construction of Krannert Center, the proposed move of the Dance Department to FAA seemed much more advisable to the university administration.

Early in the spring semester of 1968, I was called to a private meeting with Vice Chancellor Herbert Carter. I assumed the topic of this meeting was to discuss the possible move of dance to FAA and how that might affect the BS degree in the teaching of dance—a degree for which I was responsible within Physical Education. I launched into a long dialogue on the necessity of keeping all the dance offerings within one administrative structure, namely a Department of Dance in FAA. (I knew that Physical Education was lobbying to retain that degree. Some universities have dance degrees and offerings split between colleges.) At the end of our discussion, the vice chancellor asked if I would be willing to head up the Department of Dance in FAA. To say I was shocked would be an understatement! I know I said I was too young, 31 at the time, and I asked about Margaret Erlanger’s position in all this. Over several subsequent meetings, it was made clear to me that Margaret, for unknown reasons, had somehow come into conflict with the higher administrators at the university. I was told that dance would never become a department in FAA under Margaret’s direction. At this point, and with great trepidation, I agreed to become the acting head of the department.

In March 1968, the Department of Dance in the College of Fine and Applied Arts was created, and I was named the acting head. I was quickly promoted to the rank of associate professor from assistant professor. (The University of Wisconsin had just made me an offer of an associate professorship in its dance program.) I chose to remain at Illinois and took on the enormous task of taking the Dance Department from the Physical Education Department for Women and creating an independent Dance Department within the College of Fine and Applied Arts. Fortunately one of the Physical Education secretaries, Sue Parker, agreed to come with me, and she was a great help in this transition period.

Since the university administration felt beholden to me in this situation, I decided I would use this clout to retain as many dance resources as possible from PE. Several difficult meetings followed during which I negotiated that all five of the full-time-equivalent faculty who had been involved with dance in PE would be transferred to the new Dance Department (Margaret Erlanger, Willis Ward, Beverly Blossom, Marsha Paludan, and myself). The three dance degrees would be transferred as well as the sound and film equipment and the use of the small Room 10 in the Freer Gymnasium.

Sue Parker and I set up a completely new office with all the equipment that that entailed. With the help of the university’s Budget Office, I developed a departmental budget. I met with the university’s Office of Space Utilization, and Dance was allocated a gym in the English Building in addition to the studio at Krannert Center and Room 10 in the Freer Gym. I think we also taught some classes in the Men’s Old Gym in the northern part of campus. Dance faculty offices were moved to the newly acquired Dance House and another house on campus. My office would be in the newly constructed Krannert Center beginning in the fall of 1968.

I then tackled a complete curricular revision to reflect a fine arts Dance Department, rather than that of a PE-based curriculum. I remember facing a meeting of the university’s curriculum committee—all older men. It was a challenge trying to explain why dance technique classes should receive three credits, meet daily, and be repeatable for credit. Their mentality was that once you took a course, why take it again? The dean of the College of Physical Education protested the fact that I had proposed eliminating the university requirement for two years of PE for the dance majors. I felt the dancers received a sufficient amount of physical exercise. He said, “But the girls won’t know what to do with their husbands later in life.” I guess he thought if they didn’t take tennis in college, the marriage wouldn’t work. I’ve laughed about his remark ever since. Fortunately, the proposed new curricula were ultimately accepted, and we were on our way.

I insisted that during the first full year of the Dance Department, 1968-1969, Margaret Erlanger be granted a sabbatical. I felt that would be the easiest way to make the transition. When Margaret returned from that year in Japan, I assigned her the role of advisor for the dance graduate students. Her office was in the Dance House.

The move into Krannert Center was not without its own difficulties. Prior to the beginning of that semester, Willis Ward and I, along with some of the dance students, went into the beautiful new dance studio with a sense of great anticipation and gratitude that we had finally made it. We danced on the new floor for a few minutes and immediately realized that the floor, while very beautiful, was hard as rock and would lead to shin splints. Since I had been tapped for the position of department head just before the opening of the building, I had not been involved with the design of the dance studio. I reluctantly refused acceptance of the new studio, negotiated to have that floor torn out, and had a new sprung floor put in. The workers actually put real springs in the floor mounted on sleepers on end. Then a hardwood floor was put down on top of that. I observed all of this from my office right off the studio. In the meantime, all the dance classes previously scheduled for that studio were taught on the various stages within Krannert Center. The location varied from day to day, depending on the schedule for those stages. But eventually we had our new sprung floor and moved the classes into the studio by the spring of 1969.

We also converted what had been a pool hall across the street from Krannert Center and had our ballet classes taught over there. I hired Stella Applebaum as a half-time instructor in ballet.

By this time the department had 12 faculty, some of them part-time. I hired Lynn Blom from New York and Nancy Topf, also from New York. I instituted a plan to bring in a guest artist from New York for a semester at a time. The first teacher in that program was Steve Paxton, with whom I had danced in the Limón Company. Steve was in his early days of experimenting with improvisation. I remember having to intervene when he was having the students undress on one of the stages at Krannert Center. (This must have been our first semester, when we didn’t have the studio.) Then he took a class to a large shopping center in Urbana to do a Vietnam War protest dance. I received a call from the police on that one. But Steve certainly livened up the department and spurred the students to move in new directions. The spring of 1969 I brought in Katherine Litz for the semester. She was a delight and inspired the students in her own way. We had an extra gift when Barbara Lloyd came with her partner, Gordon Mumma. I had known Barbara from her beautiful dancing in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. She gifted us by teaching technique and by setting up a “dance happening” in a garden that was part of the Krannert Center complex. We inaugurated Krannert Center with an improvisational concert by the Yvonne Rainer Dance Company. Both Steve Paxton and Barbara Lloyd danced with this group. The Willis Ward Dance Company, with which I danced, also performed in one of these opening events. I brought Chester Wolenski from New York as our guest artist following Katherine Litz. I had danced with Chester in the Limón Company. He chose to remain on the dance faculty on a half-time basis.

In 1969, I married Charles (Chuck) Simonds, a graduate student in geology. I remember sitting at home in our wonderful apartment, close to campus, and having a group of dance students knock on our door. This was the time of the Vietnam War and the Cambodian invasion. Protests were lively on campus. The National Guard had been called in to control the situation. When my husband walked to his office in the evening, he had to go through a barricade of soldiers. Our dance students felt we should join other students and faculty by declaring a strike. Since we were dancers and could not stop dancing, I moved our classes to a nearby church, and we kept on going.

The last year of dance in Physical Education, 1967-1968, we had 24 dance majors. The first year of the Department of Dance in the College of Fine and Applied Arts, we jumped to 52 majors. My last year as department head (I had simply crossed through the “Acting” on my title), we had 100 undergraduates and 25 graduate students. I had done a considerable amount of publicity when the department was formed. We had also instituted an audition process for the department, though we were interested in building numbers at that time and the audition was more of a formality.

I resigned from the University of Illinois in 1971 when my husband finished his PhD. I had taught at the university for 10 years, with more than three as the first head of the Dance Department. There were numerous challenges and struggles involved in the creation and organization of the Dance Department, but the great joy I experienced in watching the dance students and faculty develop and flourish were more than worth the heartaches and the administrative effort involved.

Oliver Kostock was hired following my resignation and, I believe, stayed only a few years. The wonderful Pat Knowles then came to really put the University of Illinois on the dance map.

My husband and I moved to Houston, where he had a postdoctoral fellowship at NASA. We’ve been here ever since that time. The first years there I taught part-time at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (I had my two babies during that time period). I was an active choreographer in Houston and choreographed Moonscape for the Houston Ballet that was later performed by the Chicago Ballet. In 1977, I became the director of dance at the University of Houston at Clear Lake, a state-supported institution. We had a small, but very active group of dancers, many of whom had previous professional experience. Unfortunately in 1992, during a severe Texas budget crunch, the Theatre Program was deemed too expensive for UHCL, and it was eliminated. Since the dance degree authority was within Theatre, Dance was also eliminated. I was a full professor and stayed on at the university, serving as the division chair of Humanities and Fine Arts for the last 12 years of my career there. I retired in the spring of 2007 after 30 years at UHCL.

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